Sep 18, 2012

Under pressure


Last Saturday, September 15th, International Democracy Day was celebrated. The UN began the observance of this day in 2008 to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the First International Conference of New or Restored Democracies in Manila. That forum, whose last session occurred in Qatar in 2006, hosts discussions among representatives of governments, parliaments, the UN and the civil society on ways to promote and strengthen democracy and its associated values.

This year’s theme of International Democracy Day was “Democracy Education”: how to transmit the values of democracy to people so that it permeates the public life of societies. A panel was held in New York City, with representatives from diverse agencies of the UN, the Organization of American States and the Community of Democracies (an association of countries dedicated to the international promotion of democracy). In one phrase, the meeting went around the idea that democratic systems do not work by themselves, that they need the daily informed involvement of citizens in order to deliver results that most reflect the needs of a community.


Yesterday, September 17th, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) reached its first anniversary. According to themselves, they are “a leaderless resistance movement [… of people who] are the 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%”. Such a commemoration was good to organize a protest in NYC, which was broadcasted live through their website.

Clearly, this “movement” is far from alone, and has an explicit link to other protests around the world. On the one hand, OWS has been taken as a model: its website includes a “directory” of similar demonstrations all around the world, where people camp outside a politically or economically relevant location (a map shows they concentrate in the US and in Western and Central Europe). On the other hand, OWS also recognizes that they “are using the revolutionary Arab Springtactic to achieve [their] ends and encourage the use of nonviolence to maximize the safety of all participants.” It can be argued that not only from the Arab Spring, but also other less internationally publicized demonstrations. For example, the 15-M in Spain, against the very strict austerity measures implemented by the governments as an attempt to get out of the economic crisis, not so different from protests that have occurred elsewhere in Southern Europe. In Latin America: student gatherings in Chile against the rise of school fees, or in Mexico, asking the President to change his focus on the combat of criminal organizations to reduce the death toll (Movement for a Just and Dignifying Peace, Movimiento por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad) or trying to prevent the PRI from returning to power (#iam132, #yosoy132).


It is somewhat strange to celebrate International Democracy Day in such an environment. A survey on the specialized literature rapidly leads to the conclusion that there is no final agreement on the definition of democracy. But certainly one of its core traits is the possibility for citizen contestation of authority’s actions. This contestation can happen in two ways: using established procedures, mainly free and fair elections, and the right of association. With the topic of “democracy education” the organizers of International Democracy Day wanted to strengthen efforts to teach those two channels of contestation, especially in societies where democracy is being built.

But the fact that the protests, not only in the Arab Spring countries, which are trying to liberate from authoritarian regimes, but in other places, such as Southern Europe or the US, democratic regimes, indicate that something might be going wrong. As mentioned in other posts on this blog, it does not seem very logical to try to implement salary reductions and tax increases to pay debts, along with reforms that make worker firing easier, with the objective of reactivating economic growth. And these decisions are made by public or private actors, not elected ones, who cannot be made accountable. Hence, elections are not the ultimate channel for the expression of popular will or to achieve social incidence in government decisions. The idea of protesting is: elections don’t work, so let’s go to the street. But have the protests been successful? In some countries of the Arab Spring, to a certain extent, but not without a dose of violence on the part of governments and demonstrators, or perhaps just as triggers and the most visible element of the need for change, not as their protagonists. There is something that I feel to be missing in the way democracy is working, particularly in terms of popular participation. Or, as Freddie Mercury sang: “it’s the terror of not knowing what this world is about”.


1 Comment

  • Organizing against entrenched and powerful interests is deliberately difficult and those who have something to lose wish you would just shut up and go home. Democracy requires a continual effort to make sure power doesn’t concentrate in too few hands. It’s a noble and difficult endeavor.

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Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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